Spirit of Rowan: Salisbury was center of veteran activity when VA hospital system set roots here in 1945

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 27, 2022

One of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s last official acts was approving the construction of a VA Medical Center in Salisbury in April 1945.

The W. G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center, located at 1601 Brenner Avenue, is the headquarters of a system that now serves more than 287,000 veterans living in a 21-county area of the central Piedmont region of the state. Other sites within the system are located at Kernersville and the south and north Charlotte areas. The VA includes the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration and the National Cemetery Administration.

Congress announced in January 1944 that it would spend $500 million on the construction of VA hospitals across the nation. The Salisbury Chamber of Commerce made a bid for the establishment of a VA system in September 1944. Then-President Leo Wallace, along with J. F. Hurley and Carroll T. Overton of the Hospital Action Committee, said the application touted Salisbury’s geographically centered location, with 500,000 veterans living within 120 miles from the proposed site. Additionally, Salisbury was located on the main line of the Southern Railway system and at the center of the state’s highway systems.

Months later in December, engineers from the federal VA Department made a trip to visit the site. On April 3, 1945, the Salisbury Sunday Post reported that Roosevelt signed off on a site location in Salisbury. At the time, it was the county’s largest building project to date.

The VA Medical Center sits on 98 acres that had been donated by the American Legion Samuel C. Hart Post 14, which is currently located at 5865 South Main St. Additionally, Duke Power sold a 42-acre tract for the project at only a third of what it was worth. Salisbury’s campus also includes the the Salisbury National Cemetery Annex, which accommodates full casket and in-ground cremated interments for veterans.

Another article from September 1951 reported the groundbreaking for the last of more than a dozen buildings constructed for the VA at a total cost of about $15 million. The main buildings were also constructed with connecting tunnels.

Salisbury VA Medical Center Chief of Staff Dr. Randall Gehle said the doors opened to patients for the first time in October 1953, offering 21 buildings and around 970 beds. At the time, many patients were receiving mental health-related services.

In 1999, the Salisbury VA medical center was named in honor of Willie Gathrel Hefner, a Democrat who represented Rowan County in Congress for 12 terms beginning in 1974. He owned radio station WRKB in Kannapolis and was a Southern gospel singer. During his time in Congress, Hefner built a reputation for advocating for veterans and programs for senior adults such as Social Security and Medicare.

Gehle said while other areas today such as Charlotte and Winston-Salem have become such hubs, Salisbury’s branch employs almost 3,000 employees and serves more than 30,000 veterans at its facility alone. Approximately 100,000 unique veterans are serviced within the medical system spanning Kernersville and Charlotte.

Gehle said VA systems continue to undergo market assessments and improvements today. In addition to being a Navy veteran, Gehle is also a physician who spent nearly two decades practicing medicine in the private sector. Gehle said it’s difficult to provide comprehensive health care to all patients within the private sector, but with the VA health care system, every patient has an entire team dedicated to their health care from day one. Veterans seeking services at the Salisbury location are assigned social workers, primary care physicians, nutritionists, pharmacy doctors and mental health specialists and other medical professionals.

“This is the health care that they’ve earned,” he said.

About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com or call her at 704-797-4246.

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